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Plainview-Old Bethpage School Board Discusses Property Assessment Issues

New English Regents, Wellness Policy Also Prompt Questions

While one of the main items on the agenda at the Monday, Nov. 1 meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education was a vote on the Board Goals for the 2010/2011 school year- a topic the board had discussed and debated for several weeks- the main topic of the evening was something beyond the board’s control entirely; the shifting of property tax refund responsibility from Nassau County to school districts and municipalities, an idea which became reality when the Nassau County Legislature passed its 2011 budget.

“This is going to have a major financial impact on the school district- every school district [in the county]- as well as the towns within the county,” said Superintendent Gerard W. Dempsey Jr. He noted that school districts have been responsible for assessment errors in other counties within the state, but that this had not been the case in Nassau County since the 1930s.

Assistant Superintendent Ryan J. Ruf estimated that this change will cost the district between $1 and 2 million- probably closer to the $2 million mark- but hard figures are not available yet. However, he also said there would be other associated costs, such as the cost of challenges. Trustee Angel Cepeda suggested the possibility of setting up a reserve fund to prepare for the costs down the line, however Dempsey noted it would be difficult to set up a reserve fund again after the first year.

Trustee Ginger Lieberman was highly critical of this aspect of the new budget. “If it’s taken away from Nassau County’s budget…and it goes back to the local taxpayer, it’s a tax increase for us…it’s a shell game,” said Lieberman, going on to say that taxpayers would need to be made aware that these extra costs were not the fault of the school districts, as they have no control over them. She encouraged people to write to their legislators with their feelings on this issue.

Board President Gary Bettan agreed, saying that combined with the proposed 2 percent tax cap, the new tax assessment error responsibility may leave the district in the position of having no choice but to cut programs. Later, the board members talked about what they felt was a slim possibility of the district properly managing the assessment process, something the county has been doing for decades and has apparently not gotten right.

“So the big problem becomes- as Greg [Guercio] pointed out last meeting- if when they’re paying for their mistakes and they’re not getting it right, what incentive do they have in getting it right when their mistakes are passed on to us? The truth of the matter is that they have no incentive to do it right at that point- it becomes our problem,” said Bettan.

In other news, members of the board reported on the recent New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) Convention they had attended, as well as a law conference. Lieberman reported on listening to the chancellor and commissioner of education speak at the conference, saying it was a lot of the same message: educators are going to have to do more with less. “When asked to give help, and how we are going to achieve this, there was no real significant answer,” she said. She went on to say that, especially with the amount of blame school districts are given for economic problems in general, the amount of unfunded mandates foisted upon school districts is irresponsible, and that she was disappointed by the lack of answers.

Trustee Evy Rothman was also frustrated with the chancellor and commissioner’s speeches. “They also talked about a longer school day, and a longer school year: Who’s going to pay for that?” Rothman asked rhetorically.

Trustee Angel Cepeda reported on the business end of the conference, explaining some of the legislation NYSSBA now plans to support. This includes tenure reform (lengthening probationary period for newly hired teachers and administrators to five years, and limiting the duration of tenure protections to periods of not more than five years), and supporting an amendment to Education Law 36-35 that will allow school districts to adjust capacity of buses based on actual patterns of ridership rather than the number of eligible children. The latter would allow the district to send out smaller buses in areas where the buses may be half-empty, regardless of the number of children eligible for the bus. Currently, the number of buses provided is based on eligibility, not how many children actually utilize the service.

On a more positive note, Bettan reported on attending the Long Island Technology Expo with Director of Technology Guy Lodico. “I can’t even begin to explain to you what an asset he is to our district,” said Bettan of Lodico, saying that he not only stretches every dollar the district spends on technology, but is also highly respected among his peers.

Another important topic was the 2011 11th grade English Regents, which is undergoing a format change. While Assistant Superintendent Jill Gierasch explained some of the changes to the test, she clarified that teachers still had not seen an example of the new test. While students have often taken the Regents in January in the past, due to the mysterious and potentially more challenging nature of the test, teachers are now recommending that students wait to take it in June. Trustee Emily Schulman noted that she was concerned about the special needs students, who will not have the option of retaking the test in August should they fail, and it’s not definite that the January Regents will be available the following year; as a result, those who fail in June may not get an opportunity to take the test again until an entire year later.

Later, a parent on the high school curriculum committee noted that the committee had been supportive of the idea of skipping the January Regents in the past, however they had not known at that time that the August Regents would not be offered. “I think our opinion might be very different knowing that the Special Ed kids would not be able to take the Regents again in August. They’re not going to wait a year and try it again next year- I know as a parent, I wouldn’t put my child through that,” she said.

Dempsey clarified that getting rid of the August regents was a New York State decision, not the district’s wish, and that the teachers felt that the students would not be prepared to take a largely unknown test in January. The parent responded that she felt the board was putting the special education kids at a high risk of failure and losing their Regents diplomas. No one on the board recommended disregarding the teachers’ recommendation in light of these concerns, but they did not say that the issue was closed, either.

Speaking of those in the special education program, Director of Pupil Personnel Services Ellie Becker went over the details of the Special Education Plan, which must be proposed and renewed every two years. She reported excellent Regents results for children in special classes at the high school level, as well as that the number of special classes in the elementary school had been reduced from three to two, and many of the students removed from special classes are now meeting with success in a general education setting. Later that evening, the board passed the next Special Education Two-Year Plan.

During Public Participation, one member of the community criticized the board for no longer allowing bake sales under the new wellness policy, using the reasoning that clubs can raise money for cancer research through bake sales, therefore bake sales are good. “They can’t sell baked goods, but cancer still attacks; it’s still claiming the lives of many people in our community,” she said. She asked the board to reconsider allowing groups to hold bake sales during ninth period.

When contacted by The Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald regarding the school’s policy on bake sales, Assistant Superintendent Arthur Jonas explained that while bake sales with home-baked goods were no longer allowed due to concerns about potential allergens in foods without listed ingredients, food-oriented fundraising is still allowed. Students may sell items on an approved list during periods one through nine, and after period nine, snack foods from off the list (with listed ingredients) may be sold, provided that a healthy snack option is offered as well.

Another parent also criticized the wellness policy, saying that her child had learned to eat Rice Krispie treats as opposed to other junk food (since they were on the approved list), but didn’t seem to be learning anything else that the policy was meant to teach. She also noted that it had been her experience among her friends and fellow parents that the wellness policy was unpopular in the community. Dempsey commented to the Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald that the district was facing pressure on both ends; both from parents, like those who had spoken at the board meeting, who didn’t like the new direction, and also from those who felt the policy should be more stringent from a nutritional standpoint. Dempsey said the district had aimed for a middle-of-the-road approach.

On a different topic, frequent attendee Stefanie Nelkens noted that many of the anti-bullying programs mentioned by Dempsey at the previous board of education meeting were only available to students if their teachers chose to participate, which could be misleading for those who thought their child might partake of an activity going on at their school. Dempsey responded that any comprehensive, grade-wide anti-bullying programs would be instituted as a result of the upcoming passing of the board goals, which include school climate goals, further noting that he did not read off the list of anti-bullying programs to give the impression that they were comprehensive, but to update those who were concerned about the issue about what is currently being done. Bettan pointed out that the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) requires the district to come up with a standard anti-bullying curriculum, but the act of creating that curriculum will take time.

Another parent complained about the condition of the locker rooms and athletic facilities, particularly the locker room at POB Middle School, which he called “atrocious” and “a health hazard.” While he noted that he was generally pleased with the work the board had been doing, he was frustrated with the lack of respect for the sports program. Dempsey said the board would soon receive a report as to the various building needs throughout the district, although there are always more needs than can be funded. When the parent reiterated that he felt the facility was unsafe, Bettan said that he would see if something could be done about the locker room.

In more general news, the high school fall play will be The Diary of Anne Frank. Performances will be held Nov. 18-Nov. 20 at a cost $12 per ticket. However, the Thursday, Nov. 18 performance will be offered to senior citizens of the community free of charge, as always.

The next Board of Education meeting on Nov. 22 will be the first Student Recognition Night of the school year. This special meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the large instruction room at Mattlin Middle School.